It was the last thing Jim and Ginevra were expecting to hear.
Jim and Ginevra Ralph are the co-founders of the Shedd Institute for the Arts. As profiled in this recent post, the Shedd is a small and vibrant mash-up of performing arts center, school, and community gathering place in Eugene, Oregon. They put their audience at the “heart of everything” they do, and a big part of that commitment is a passion for accessibility.
They aim to provide a home for music for everybody and have spent decades removing barriers that could limit audiences with disabilities. In addition to elevators, ramps and large print programs, they were proud of their state-of-the art FM assisted listening sound system.
So imagine their dismay, when after a performance, a friend of theirs with severe hearing impairment came out of their auditorium, marched up to them and said “I love you guys, but your hearing system stinks.”
They were taken aback. Still, they took the feedback seriously, and so began their unexpected odyssey to learn about old technology made new again, a global search for solutions, and a cause they are championing with characteristic zeal.
“Your hearing system stinks”
A common hearing assistance solution in North American performing arts venues is some form of FM device, and this is what The Shedd was using. They thought it was the best thing out there. So why were Jim and Ginevra being told it stinks? For starters, it requires a bulky neck pack or headset that a user needs to stand in a special line to receive, often leaving a driver’s license behind as collateral. By wearing the device, it announces to the world that you are “different”. From an audio perspective, these devices have the pros and cons of any sound delivery system and can be hit or miss.
Jim and Ginevra hated hearing that their sound system wasn’t doing the trick and wondered: is there a better solution? Turns out there is.
Back to the Future with Hearing Loops
Through talking to colleagues and doing their own research, Jim and Ginevra learned about hearing loop technology — something entirely different from FM. I had never heard of hearing loops before my visit with Jim and Ginevra. In fact, for the first five minutes or so, they were excitedly telling me all about the details and I finally had to sheepishly stop them and say “I actually have no idea what you are talking about right now.” (Have you ever been that person?)
With a smile, Jim backed up and described it to me in great length. It is fascinating.
Essentially, Hearing Loops are an older technology originally developed for telephones, and yet provide a far better experience than other tech. A hearing loop is called a loop because it starts with an actual copper wire “looped” around the floor of the room (usually under the carpet). This wire is connected to a processor which is connected to strategically-placed “listening” microphones in the hall. The combination of the loop, the processor and the microphones create a magnetic field in the room that provides crystal clear sound directly to the telecoil receiver in the hearing aid or cochlear implant of an audience member. No headsets at all. And that is the important part: a hearing loop allows the crystal clear sound and music from the stage to interact directly with the hearing aid, rather than through the blunt instrument of a generic headset.
For someone with hearing loss, it is like a personal Bose system built into your hearing aid. Amazingly, most hearing aids already have this telecoil receiver included as part of their default technology. Audiologists generally don’t enable it in the US because hearing loop technology is rare in this country.
So now consider this: studies show that when exposed to hearing looped sound versus other technologies, people with hearing loss rate hearing loop technology five times more effective than the other technologies. That’s some incredible empirical evidence.
Just as important is the anecdotal evidence. The comments Jim and Ginevra have heard from audience members at the end of a performance since they put a hearing loop in their largest theater include:
“I had given up on going to live music — but now I can hear again.”
“I never thought I’d hear violins again.”
“It was like the guitar was literally in the back of my head. I had chills the whole time. I can’t believe it.”
Others have nothing to say — they are just crying with joy.
Great! So are hearing loops pervasive?
Studies and anecdotes show that hearing loop technology is superior. In the grand scheme of things, loop technology isn’t even that expensive to put in. It cost the Shedd about $50,000 to fully “loop” their 750-seat theater.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that the Shedd is one of the few performing arts venues in the United States with hearing loops installed. Jim and Ginevra were baffled as to why this would be — but they have wholeheartedly joined the effort to bring loops to the world.
Sue and Hugh Prichard on the stage of The Shedd as it underwent a renovation that included the installation of the telecoil loop system. Sue has hearing loss and was an early proponent for the system at The Shedd. Credit: Chris Pietsch/The Register Guard, 2017
Beyond their walls, they have begun a robust new movement in their town called “Loop Eugene” which aims to build advocacy and raise money to put hearing loops throughout the city. Loops are already cropping up in Eugene community centers and churches, and they want to see as many public places looped as possible.
A call to arms for ears
So, does your organization have loop technology? Here are four reasons our friends at the Shedd suggest you consider it:
- Accessibility: Most if not all cultural organizations we work with have a stated commitment to accessibility, often beyond legal requirements. Various assisted listening technologies “check the box,” but do they allow you to provide the best experience? For Jim and Ginevra it was an existential question. How could they be an organization with a mission to share music with their community if their assisted listening technology wasn’t world class?
- Economic: One third of people 65+ (and 50% of those 75+) suffer from hearing loss. Compare that to the percentage of your audience that is over 65. How many tickets are you not selling because people can no longer enjoy the experience? Jim and Ginevra learned that this was a very real thing for Shedd audiences.
- Funding: Plenty of foundations and other agencies fund projects that provide better accessibility and experience for people with disabilities. Ginevra pointed out that people with hearing loss are often personally able to be enthusiastic donors as well.
- And finally, humanity: Studies show that hearing loss can be deeply isolating and lead to depression, especially in elderly populations. I watched both my grandmother and father withdraw as their hearing loss became more acute. It was heartbreaking. Hearing loop technology can help bring folks with hearing loss back into the communal experience of the arts.
Epilogue: The power of the Tessitura community
During my visit with Jim and Ginevra in Eugene, Oregon, I mentioned my upcoming ’round-the-world trip to Australia and Europe. They remarked that they had heard hearing loop technology was much more pervasive in those regions. Later, Ginevra followed up with an email:
“As I think about your travels, you could be a HUGELY useful data-gatherer on what venues around the world are looped — and their experiences with their users.”
Happy to take on the charge, I got a little obsessed. I emailed them a photo from the Melbourne Recital Centre:
I found one in a black taxi cab in London:
Even in the London Tube:
But the really transformative part happened in Sydney. I was having dinner with Adriana Law, Head of Marketing Technology for Opera Australia, and Nic Boling, Chief Technology Officer at the Sydney Opera House. Out of the blue I said, “Say Nic, what is your take on hearing loops?”
Here I am with Nic Boling, Chief Technology Officer at Sydney Opera House (and a huge hearing loop fan)
Nic’s eyes lit up. “How much time do you have?”
Nic is a huge proponent of hearing loop technology, and the Opera House has been putting in state-of-the-art loop technology as they renovate their theaters. Nic’s excited dissertation on loop technology reminded me so much of Jim and Ginevra that I e-introduced them the next day. Nic followed up with learnings, philosophy, and willingness to talk, and Ginevra provided insights as well.
But the best moment was when I received this email from Ginevra:
“Your email came in at the very moment we were heading to the Oregon state capitol to testify on behalf of a state agency that gave us funding to add loops throughout the rest of our building. I shared your message with them.”
I will often get asked, “So really, what’s the deal with this Tessitura community? Isn’t it just some cult thing?” Consider the above example: through knowledge-sharing across this global community, one of our smallest Tessitura organizations was assisted in a potential funding initiative to help a key segment of the population — by one of the largest Tessitura organizations, 8,000 miles away. That’s what this community is about.
This was also a lovely way to end my Small World Tour. A reminder that size doesn’t matter in the Tessitura community.
Regardless of size, geography or genre, this community gets its strength from our diversity of perspectives, collaborating toward a shared goal to advance arts and culture.
This is the final installment of my Small World Tour, a blog series that chronicled my ‘round-the-world trip to visit smaller Tessitura organizations. Special thanks once again to The Shedd Institute, Pinchgut Opera, Barking Gecko Theatre Company, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for sharing their inspiring stories.